Why do we accept IT project failures?

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I was speaking to one of our clients recently and asked how it was going? ‘Oh, not bad’, he said, ‘apart from an £8 million overrun on a critical project.’

What struck me was not that a project had over-run or that it was so over budget. There are countless examples in the press of major IT project failures. No, what worried me most was the fatalistic attitude this IT Director had towards project failure. Rather than taking a ‘this is unacceptable’ standpoint, he seemed to suggest that ‘they’ always go over budget and probably do not deliver the business outcomes that were expected either.

This fatalistic approach to IT projects is becoming quite a common phenomenon which I find particularly worrying in these times of austerity. If organisations are spending millions of pounds more on IT projects than they plan or need to, then something has to be done about it.

As there could be many root causes of project failure, there cannot be one solution or silver bullet that prevents projects from not meeting their goals or going wildly over budget. However, one thing that is clearly needed is a warning system that flashes danger and ‘intervention required’ at the appropriate moment. Sounds sensible enough, but in fact this is precisely where the problem of IT project failure can be exacerbated when people choose the wrong system for the job.

A typical warning system is a project, portfolio management (PPM) system which, by the way, can be a major project in itself to implement. PPM systems have become more mature in recent years but have gone, in my opinion, in the wrong direction. They have grown into vast, lumbering beasts that must be fed with huge amounts of data.

Once the data is included, the problem is that they can be data mined to show virtually any type of information in any type of report that you could wish for. The size and scale of some of these PPM applications can give an organisation a false sense of comfort or security that everything is being managed properly. In essence, these big systems give Project Managers ample opportunity to hide problems, keeping them out of their reports; which, ironically, is exactly what the technology was supposed to prevent. This is exactly the sort of thing that actually causes project failure and cost overruns.

In fact the client that I mentioned in the first paragraph had one of these large PPM systems in place. It did not prevent or even give a warning that this project would fail so spectacularly. A different approach is clearly needed.

A portfolio manager is responsible for ‘landing’ a number of projects successfully. If we take the analogy with air traffic control, maybe we can learn something. The air traffic controllers need to maintain information about the planes that they are responsible for guiding in. They have a system that maintains key status information about a plane’s journey, e.g. altitude, speed, elevation and so on. They are not swamped with so much information that they are not able to focus on the critical indicators and help pilots fly planes safely. They do not need to know the names of each passenger and the type of luggage that they are carrying. What they do need is a set of indicators about the plane, e.g.: engine status, fuel, speed, etc. These indicators allow the air traffic controllers to monitor the status of a plane and guide it accordingly.

To land projects, you need a similar air traffic warning system that will trigger flags or alerts when there is a problem with a project. Simplicity is the key. Any PPM system worth its salt must be straightforward and easily understood by everyone. Also critical is that the system guarantees honest reporting of key status indictors, e.g. progress, team, cost, benefits, etc. These two essential qualities will ensure that problems will be spotted early and allow corrective action to be taken quickly.

It does not have to integrate with every other system in the organisation and make the toast and coffee too! What’s needed are clear, understandable indicators that projects are on course to land properly or are about to crash into the control tower. The quicker problems are discovered, the quicker they can be overcome and the less money is wasted.

We should not be fatalistic about IT project failure and cost overruns. Projects may well hit some turbulence while flying and may well land with a bump. But we should not simply expect them to fly into a mountain every time.

Proper, accessible, focused PPM systems could work wonders for project safety statistics. And in this climate, nobody can afford to accept failure before they even take off.

David Walton
About the author
David Walton

I am David Walton, Programme,Project and Portfolio Management specialist and director of Bestoutcome here in the UK. We make the PMO tools PM3, PM3time and PM3change, the only PMO tools designed by practitioners for practitioners.

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One Response to “Why do we accept IT project failures?”

June 25, 2013 at 9:20 am, The Importance of Project Quality Gates | Bestoutcome said:

[…] project is still viable and on track to deliver its benefits. In an earlier blog I lamented that too many projects keep on going when they should have been terminated. This is what we call the mastermind approach, i.e. ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’. But as a […]